The Samovar


Waiting
November 30, 2006, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Business, Economics, Food, Free Speech, Media, Politics

Just waiting for some calculations to finish running on my computer, so I thought I’d spend the time taking the piss out of a rubbish article on CiF by Brendan O’Neill called Abolish Ofcom. He argues against the recent decision to ban the advertising of junk food during children’s TV.

First a bit of background on Brendan O’Neill. He used to be a communist of sorts, he wrote for the infamous Living Marxism magazine. He now writes right-wing libertarian guff like this. Most of his articles are a joke – including this one.

Right from the beginning, he gets things so wrong:

I’m still in a state of shock that Ofcom’s announcement last week of a total ban on junk food advertising during kids’ TV programmes did not elicit more outrage. You, like me, might not lose any sleep over the fact that McDonald’s, Coca Cola and others have been royally screwed over.

Actually, as the Telegraph mentioned in their article on this, some time ago now, McDonald’s, Coke, etc. can still advertise as brands, but not individual fatty products.

Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is based entirely on subjective criteria. Its starting point is a subjective view of certain foods as “junk”.

Er, no. As the BBC notes, it’s based on sugar, salt and fat content of the food, and Ofcom doesn’t even decide what does or doesn’t count as junk food themselves:

A Food Standards Agency ratings system will be used to assess which foods are too high in fat, sugar and salt to be advertised to children.

Back to Brendan:

And let’s not beat around the bush: they mean fries served by McDonald’s, which are less fatty than the duck a la orange dishes served in the best restaurants in the land.

If he were less generally ignorant about everything, I’d suspect that this line was included deliberately to provoke snobs like me to make comments like this. Firstly, duck a la orange? How many ways is that wrong? He’s mixing French and English and he’s got the French bit wrong. Secondly, served in the best restaurants in the land? No clue. Finally, he completely misses the major points that people don’t eat rich, fatty restaurant food like foie gras – to use an example that makes his point slightly better than he does – regularly, unlike McDonalds and Coke, and that these restaurants are not advertising on TV.

He then goes on to say that advertising doesn’t have any effect on children’s eating habits anyway:

Indeed, one academic study found that “just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising”.

Oh yeah? Then why do they spend all that money on it? 😉

Anyway, my program has finished running now so I won’t continue this tirade. I’ll just finish by pointing out that he doesn’t make the distinction between children and adults. Adults, we would presume, can make their own minds up when they see an advert. Children on the other hand are much more impressionable and even more subject to peer pressure. Despite ignoring it earlier in his article, he can’t help but recognise this distinction when he says right at the end:

… but Ofcom treats us as children who must be protected and mollycoddled by the powers-that-be…

No! Ofcom is treating children as children! Sheesh. Why do the Guardian keep publishing articles by this guy? I suppose they’re quite funny, maybe that’s it.

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Ubuntu
November 22, 2006, 5:00 pm
Filed under: Business, Free Speech

The last week or so I’ve installed and played around with Ubuntu Linux. I’ve been sort of getting more and more pissed off with Microsoft and the other software giants: the endless restrictions on what you can do with your software, the digital rights management, the heavy legal tactics against the little guy, etc.

My experience so far is that although Linux has got a hell of a lot better since last time I used it, it’s still a long way from being something your average user would be able to deal with. To start with, the built in disk partitioning tool didn’t work for me and I ended up having to use command line tools to manually resize my WinXP NTFS partition and create a Linux one, which included counting the number of cylinders (whatever they are) in my hard disk, etc. Then I had problems with the wireless internet – the standard Ubuntu installation doesn’t have a wireless network manager which is just unforgiveable. That was a relatively easy installation if you had some idea of what you were looking for. I had to change the video drivers because the built-in ones don’t use 3D acceleration,  the sound driver because it sounded tinny. Fortunately, a bit of googling quickly finds you whatever information you need if you’re reasonably confident about tinkering about and typing things like “sudo gedit /etc/X11/xorg.conf” etc.

Now that I’ve mostly got it working, it’s pretty good but to be honest it’s a step down from WinXP. I think I shall mostly stick to using Windows but I want to be ready when MS and co. do something so annoying that I decide I can’t stand to use their software any more.

One thing that really stands out though is Xgl and Beryl – who would have thought it, wobbly semi-transparent windows and four desktops on a cube. Ingenius!



Media freedom
November 18, 2006, 4:51 am
Filed under: Business, Economics, Free Speech, Media, Politics

A few things have come my way recently about media freedom in a contemporary society. What got me started thinking about it was an article on znet by media lens co-founder David Cromwell, about the influence of advertising money on newspapers. It reminded me of a similar essay posted by Chris Shumway (now a journalist at the excellent advertising-free New Standard) on his webpage a few years ago, which got him fired from his job at WBNS. His webpage is gone now, but I found a copy of the essay here (and a more recent comment of his on the affair here).

The bit that got Shumway fired in July 2000 was:

The TV station I [worked] for allows a major bank not only to sponsor a daily financial news segment (called “Your Money”) they also get to supply the “expert” commentator (a bank official) and write the script! Each day, the bank selects a topic and faxes the newsroom a set of questions for the anchors to ask during the segment. Most of the questions refer to products and services sold by the bank; some even deal with public policy matters that directly affect the banking industry. On one particular day, our “expert” was asked about a hike in interest rates by the Federal Reserve Board. He explained that it was necessary “medicine” for the economy: an antidote for rising inflation. What he didn’t say was that banks and other lending institutions rake in bigger profits from loans when interest rates are higher. Of course, I would not expect a banker to say this on live television, but shouldn’t one of the “news” anchors have brought this up? And shouldn’t they have mentioned that the Federal Reserve Board is made up of banking representatives and that historically its policies benefit lenders and creditors (banks)? They also could have questioned his claim that the rate increase was needed to battle inflation. Many economists agree that inflation at moderate levels (say 5% or so, which is higher that we had at the time of the rate hike) is not a problem for most people, especially if it is corresponding to true wage gains. Additionally, the anchors could have mentioned that many consumer groups opposed the increase (even the National Association of Manufacturers called it “unnecessary shock treatment”). But no, our anchors did not seriously question or challenge anything our advertiser-appointed “expert” said. Instead, the anchors meekly followed orders–and the advertiser’s script–as all well trained lap dogs do.

The medialens article describes some similar things. They quote a report by FAIR stating:

The essential conflict of commercial news media was on full display when giant advertisers BP, the oil company, and Morgan Stanley, the financial services company, both issued directives demanding that their ads be pulled from any edition of a publication that included potentially “objectionable” content. BP went so far as to demand advance notice of any stories that mention the company, a competitor of the company or the oil and energy industry in general (AdAge.com, 5/24/05).

On the way they notice an interesting fact about reliance on advertising.

We noted that in his ‘Errors & Omissions’ column Keleny had omitted to mention that the quality press, including the Independent, is dependent upon advertising for around 75 per cent of its revenue. It would be irrational to claim that this has no impact on shaping the content of his newspaper.

All this is related (explicitly) to Chomsky and Herman’s 1988 propaganda model (in Manufacturing Consent). Despite the name, it describes a conspiracy-theory-free model of how the agenda of news outlets is partially shaped by government and corporate interests. Well worth reading about if you haven’t already.

Yesterday, an article by Unity at the Ministry of Truth blog pointed me towards an account in the British Journalism Review of how some journalists are influenced by MI6.

So in the light of all this, what are we to make of media freedom and trustworthiness?

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